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A short history of how Chardonnay became America’s No. 1 white wine

June 4, 2017
Nancy checking frost damage

Chardonnay is the world’s fifth-most planted grape but it still needs some attention. Here, winemaker Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards near Grand Junction, Co., checks on some new buds following a light frost.

Chardonnay has been part of American winemaking since at least 1882, when Charles Wetmore planted the vine in his vineyard in Livermore Valley east of San Francisco.

Other plantings followed and in 1912 Ernest Wente, son of C.H. Wente, founder of the winery of the same name in Livermore Valley, convinced his father to import some Chardonnay cuttings from Montpellier University in France.

Carl Wente also brought in some cuttings from the historic Gier Vineyard in Pleasanton, Cal., and gradually Wente developed his own clones.

Today, there are nearly 100,000 acres of Chardonnay planted in California and it’s estimated 80 percent of those vines are the Wente clone.

Wente also bottled the first labeled Chardonnay in 1936, and today Wente, in its fifth generation of family winemakers, bills itself as “The First Family of Chardonnay.”

In the 1970s, thanks to America’s growing interest in wine, especially a food-friendly wine that’s also a superb cocktail wine, and one whose name offered a bit of cachet to a novice wine-drinker’s vocabulary, Chardonnay rapidly became, and still is, America’s No. 1 white wine.

Popularity means more production and as production increased, overall quality suffered.

Chardonnay is a fairly neutral grape and a winemaker can affect the final result without too much effort.

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‘No Oak’ Chardonnay gained popularity after a consumer backlash over winemakers using too much oak to flavor their wines.

Some winemakers, preferring to let their vineyards and the grape show themselves without added influences, use non-reactive stainless-steel tanks for fermenting and aging to get the purest expression of the grape itself (call this the French or Burgundian style).

However, like a lot of grapes, Chardonnay also reacts well to aging in oak barrels (mainly French, American or Hungarian). However, too much oak can be deleterious.

A subtle touch of oak (with hints of vanilla, spice, caramel) can highlight Chardonnay’s natural flavors. But too much oak can overwhelm and instead of Chardonnay it tastes like crème brule.

And, of course, some winemakers tried to disguise poor winemaking by adding a lot of oak, sometimes foregoing barrels in favor of oak staves or chips.

“Winemakers must have figured that if a little oak was good, a lot must be even better,” said winemaker Nancy Janes at Whitewater Hill Vineyards and Winery on Orchard Mesa in western Colorado. “Luckily, that stopped.”

Following the inevitable backlash, including a widespread consumer revolt known as ABC (Anything But Chardonnay), winemakers have come back to a more-balanced use of oak.

Today many wineries offer both oak and no-oak choices.

“I’m seeing some consumers going back to a more-oaky style,” said Janes, who was one of the first in the Grand Valley to offer a no-oak Chardonnay. “Not the level of 15 years ago but more of a light oak touch.”

She offers both a no-oak style and a lightly oaked Reserve Chardonnay, the latter rapidly becoming one of her more-popular wines.

Wente also offers a selection of oak and no-oak Chardonnays, including Eric’s Chardonnay, a special, artisan-style Small Lot offering  “preserving the delicate flavors of the fruit” and “expression of the vineyard terroir,” said fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente.

 

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